The postwar American scientific instrument industry

In Workshop on postwar American high tech industry, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, 21-22 June 2007 (2007)
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The production of scientific instruments in America was neither a postwar phenomenon nor dramatically different from that of several other developed countries. It did, however, undergo a step-change in direction, size and style during and after the war. The American scientific instrument industry after 1945 was intimately dependent on, and shaped by, prior American and European experience. This was true of the specific genres of instrument produced commercially; to links between industry and science; and, just as importantly, to manufacturing practices and cultures. I will argue that, despite the new types of instrument commercialized after the war, this historical continuity of links with science and scientists guided and constrained the design and manufacture of these products. Nevertheless, new designers, manufacturers and customers gradually transformed the culture of scientific instruments in the second half of the century. This chapter deals with a subset of the American instrument industry, namely the measuring and monitoring instruments manufactured for scientific use. Even with the specification of ‘scientific’ instruments, however, these borders are rather artificial and unclear: instrument making from the seventeenth through the twentieth century has generally involved the fabrication of both standard products and custom-made devices for scientific use.2 In this context of sales quantities, ‘scientific’ instruments have often been defined as low-volume, special-order or custom devices. In a similar vein, ‘scientific’ instruments were commonly distinguished from ‘production’ instruments by context of usage, namely their very absence from – and indeed irrelevance to – production environments. This demarcation according to customer and environment was mirrored in at least one furth er respect: the training of their users. The classification into ‘scientific’ and ‘engineering’ applications was as fluid as the relationship between American universities and technical industries themselves.Despite these complementary definitions, the notion of the ‘scientific instrument’ was beginning to prove inadequate even at the turn of the twentieth century, and dramatically so when discussing the post-Second World War period. Definitions altered qualitatively after the Second World War in at least three further ways: (a) new genres of device altered the scope of the scientific instrument; (b) the contribution of State and military sponsorship of new forms of instrument became significant; and, (c) the postwar demand for specialist instruments increased rapidly, owing to wartime innovation, new applications and new customers. I will explore the evolution of instrument manufacturing in this changing context of new technology, funding, development and markets.



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Sean F. Johnston
University of Glasgow

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